Virus fires terrorism fears

Virus fires terrorism fears

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Ron Fouchier, the scientist whose research led to debate.
Ron Fouchier, the scientist whose research led to debate.
Photo: NYT
With the peak flu season approaching, many people may be unaware that current scientific knowledge of how to tackle and prevent an influenza epidemic is still likely to be influenced by a controversial case that happened just over a year ago.

In December 2011, Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, genetically mutated a highly lethal strain of H5N1, and submitted a research paper for publication. His findings suggest only four additional mutations were needed to allow the virus to take the leap from its typical route - of transmission from bird to humans - to being transmissible airborne from human to human.

Since the start of the H5N1 outbreak in 2003, 345 of 584 confirmed cases have been fatal, giving the influenza virus an extremely high mortality rate.

At first glance, the findings appear to be a major breakthrough in our understanding of bird flu transmission. But authorities, such as America's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, declared the research too dangerous to publish. It called for it to be censored, on the grounds that terror groups might use the information to craft a deadly weapon of mass destruction.

Different groups voiced security concerns about allowing research involving highly dangerous pathogens to be conducted. This contrasted with fears about government censorship of individual research.

Although scientific journals eventually voted unanimously to publish a revised edition of the paper six months' later, problems generated by the debate, such as funding cuts and new controls on taxpayer-funded studies in the United States, led to a voluntary moratorium.

Many scientists involved in research into lethal viruses, such as the H5N1, chose to stop their work, and scientific investigations in the area were halted.

While research into highly pathogenic viruses could pose a risk to public safety, halting research comes at a greater cost of missing out on findings that could develop preventive measures for future influenza epidemics. Is it our duty to publish scientific findings even when, potentially, they can be used for evil?

We must be aware that our scientific advancements and growing power to "manipulate" nature entrusts us with increased responsibility to use the knowledge obtained wisely.

The late British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke made a pertinent observation: "As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying."

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